There are so many different types of tea that it may come as a surprise to learn they are all made from pretty much the same plant. Of course, some are flavored with essential oils (Earl Grey, for example, has oil of bergamot, which is made from a type of
bitter orange) or fragrant herbal additives (like the jasmine flowers added to jasmine tea), but the basic ingredient, the tea leaf itself, comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. It should perhaps be clarified at this point that we are talking
about caffeinated teas, not "herbal" ones. Herbal teas have only come to be called teas because they are steeped the way the real thing is.
Officially, an herbal tea -- that is, one made completely from dried mint leaves or chamomile blossoms or rose hips or any combination of herbs and spices that does not include the leaves of the tea plant -- is actually an infusion or a tisane.
The tea plant is an evergreen shrub. As the name Camellia sinensis suggests, it is related to the same camellias that are popular with American gardeners because they produce showy,
fragrant white or pink flowers during the winter, when most other plants are dormant. In fact, wherever you can grow garden-variety camellias (basically, in parts of the country where winters are mild), you can probably have a tea bush. And although it
won't produce a quality or quantity of leaves that would justify going to the trouble to pluck, prepare, steep, and sip them, you can still enjoy the yellow-centered white flowers and congratulate yourself on possessing such a versatile and historically important plant.
All tea begins with the harvesting of the newest foliage from the bush. Only the unopened leaf bud and the top three or four tenderest leaves on a branch are ever used. Next, the freshly plucked leaves go through a process called "withering." They are put
in a warm dry place for most of a day and allowed to wilt until they contain only about 40% of their original moisture. Then the leaves are "rolled" or "curled." This step used to be done by hand, with the workers grabbing bunches of wilted leaves and
rolling them between the palms of their hands, pressing to crush the leaf cells.
What happens next, however, makes all the difference in the world, as a look at the meanings of just a few tea terms will show. Keep in mind that this is just the very basics of tea terminology. This beverage inspires reverence and connoisseurship, and
those who are interested will find that there are plenty of tea-related phrases to learn and subtleties to discern.
All teas are either black, green, or oolong:
Black teas are by far the most popular teas in the West. They are the teas of fancy tea parties, of the Boston Tea Party, of the British concept of "tea and sympathy." They are sweetened and served over ice in the American South. The crucial step in making
black tea is to allow the juices in the rolled fresh leaves to darken from contact with the air. Tea makers call this process "fermentation," although, technically, it is "oxidation." A similar process occurs when the flesh of a cut apple turns brown. The
dark substances that form while the tea leaves are exposed to the air are produced by the chemical reactions of the tannins in the tea. They give the tea astringency, robust flavor and aroma, and they leach into hot water to produce the characteristic
reddish-amber color (the Chinese, preferring to designate the tea by its color after brewing as opposed to before, call black teas "red teas"). The oxidizing stage of tea processing does not take long, no more than four hours. When the leaves have
transformed sufficiently, then they are "fired," dried over heat to stop the oxidation process.
Green teas, on the other hand, are very popular in Asia and are only just beginning to catch on here. Green tea is made by preventing the tea leaves from ever oxidizing at all. Instead, the leaves are steamed right after the withering stage, which destroys
the enzymes that would otherwise cause the darkening. The steamed leaves are rolled and immediately fired. Thus, the dried tea leaves remain green, and the brewed tea, a pale green liquid, has a subtle, slightly bitter flavor, with grassy hints of the
flavor of the fresh plant. Because the tannins do not go through the oxidizing process, which has a mellowing effect, green tea can be bitterer, more astringent than black, especially if it is steeped for a long time.
Oolong and Pouchong Teas
Oolongs and pouchongs are "semi-fermented" teas. That is, they are processed the same way that black teas are, but they aren't allowed to oxidize fully. For pouchong tea, the oxidizing step is reduced to about one-quarter of the full length. Oolongs (which
are more popular), ferment longer, about half as long as a black tea. Predictably, the flavor of a semi-fermented tea is somewhere in between black tea and green tea. Particularly good oolongs are supposed to have a peachy flavor and aroma. One of the
best of these, Formosa Oolong, is produced on the island of Taiwan. The word Formosa comes from the name given to Taiwan by 16th-century Portuguese explorers. Ilha Formosa, they called it "Beautiful Island."
The basics mastered, there are still many variables to consider. Take just a few:
The word "pekoe," which is used in grading black teas, is a corruption of the Chinese word meaning "silver-haired." This refers to the silvery down found on especially young tea leaves. "Orange Pekoe" is a type familiar to most tea drinkers, and those who
have tasted it are aware that it is neither flavored with oranges nor especially orange-colored. In this case, "Orange" probably comes from the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange. (The Dutch played a major role in bringing tea to the West, and the
Dutch East India Company was the first large tea trading company in Europe.) So Orange Pekoe tea is a fancy grade of black tea, as indicated by the reference to Dutch nobility and the fact that it contains particularly young tea leaves. There are numerous grades of and variations on pekoe tea. In brief, the fancier it is, the younger the leaves used to make it -- and the less likely they are to have broken during processing. Tippy Golden Flowery
Orange Pekoe, for example, is made with the very tips of the branches, the leaf buds, which turn golden during fermenting. Broken Pekoe is made with fewer leaf tips, more stems, and the leaves are no longer whole. Pekoe Fannings and the smaller Pekoe Dust
are tea leaves that have been crushed even more during processing. Fannings and dust are often used in tea bags because they release color and flavor into hot water more rapidly than larger or more tightly rolled pieces.
Gunpowder, Imperial, and Hyson teas
Among Chinese green teas, Gunpowder, Hyson, and Imperial are popular. Gunpowder is made with high-grade, young leaves that have been rolled into small, tight balls. The loose tea looks a little like small lead shot. Hyson (the word means "young spring")
teas are also made with young leaves, but they are not rolled so tightly. The Imperial designation indicates that a tea has been made with slightly older leaves.
Darjeeling and Assam teas
The climate and terrain in the area where tea shrubs are grown have a considerable effect on the flavor of the harvest, so regions of origin are often a part of a tea's name. Assam and Darjeeling teas, two favorites from India, are examples of this. In the
early 19th century, the British, eager to gain control of a tea-producing area, were thrilled to discover tea plants (now known as Camellia sinensis, var. assamica) growing wild in Assam, the very northeastern region of India. Soon, they had their
colonists producing great quantities of Assam tea to supply the Empire. At Darjeeling, less than 200 miles from where those first wild tea plants were found, the tea estates have been built at famously high altitudes. The town is in the Himalyas, and, in
fact, has a view of Mount Everest when the weather permits. The altitude is credited with giving the tea plants the benefit of a long, slow growing season. Tea made from leaves picked in May and early June is light and flowery; the best, most complex, and
most expensive teas are made from leaves harvested in June and July. By August, the approaching monsoon has diminished the quality of the harvest, and from January to April the plants do not produce usable growth.
The greenest of the green teas, matcha, is made from very high-quality tea leaves ground into a fine powder. It is associated especially with the ritual Japanese ceremony, the Chado, or the "Way of Tea." The
powder, which is stored in a container called a natsume, is bright spring-leaf green. It is prepared by using a special bamboo whisk to mix the powder and hot water. The final product is a cloudy emerald liquid topped with a layer of brilliant green foam.
It is traditionally sipped out of a small bowl. Because the actual tea particles are held in suspension in the water, rather than being steeped and strained out in the usual way, matcha is very strong and bitter. Most westerners take some time to become
accustomed to its flavor.